Saturday, October 21, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Last Witch Hunter

Using the word “last” in your film title is both a signifier of dramatic content (how can what’s onscreen not be some kind of götterdämmerung?) and a self-styled elevation to some pretty impressive company. ‘The Last Picture Show’. ‘The Last Tycoon’. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. ‘The Last Waltz’. ‘The Last Emperor’. ‘The Last Seduction’. ‘The Last Detail’*.

And that’s why it’s so galling when lesser films go the “last” route. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. ‘The Last Castle’. ‘The Last Airbender’ (a film that sounds like it’s about the fin de siecle of flatulence). ‘The Last Boy Scout’. It’s as if you’d announced your piece of cinematic product as ‘The Last Motherfucking Badass Motherfucker’ and what unspooled through the projector was basically every single episode of ‘Ivor the Engine’ edited to feature length.

Which is a 130-word way of saying that a film entitled ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ sets up certain expectations. Granted, certain elements begin to undermine said expectations – Exhibit A: “starring Vin Diesel”; Exhibit B: “directed by Brett Eisner” – but then you note the presence of Michael Caine, Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood in the supporting cast. And besides, it’s called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to spend an hour forty-six minutes on a film called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’?


Oh. Okay.

So it is just me then.


‘The Last Witch Hunter’ (hereinafter ‘TLWH’) kicks off with a prologue set at some indeterminate point in history. I’d like to be charitable and describe it as the middle ages, but I rather think the production designer had watched too much ‘Game of Thrones’ (maybe he had some say in Leslie’s casting?). Some bearded dudes with heavy duty swords and axes venture through a wintry landscape and come across the lair of a witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht). Their numbers are decimated as the witch queen’s legions unleash themselves. Eventually, though it’s a smackdown between the witch queen and Kaulder (Diesel). Kaulder wields a sword of fire (yeah, that’s pretty much your first quality control plummet right there). He runs the witch through; the witch mortally wounds him.

But Kaulder doesn’t die. The witch queen curses him with immortal life. Cut to: the early twentieth century and Kaulder is working for a shadowy ecumenical organisation called the Axe and Cross (which every single cast member manages to enunciate as a single word – Axsunkross – making it sound like the world’s least convincing German death metal band), wherein he’s aided by a series of individuals known as Dolans. Each Dolan is a sort of composite butler, advisor and biographer. Kind of like Beauchamp from ‘Unforgiven’ crossed with Alfred the butler from the Batman films. The Alfred comparison is strengthened by the fact that Kaulder’s current Dolan (the 36th shadowy priest to have held the position, and on the verge of retirement) is played by Michael Caine. Not the Michael Caine of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or ‘The Prestige’, unfortunately – you know, the Michael Caine who’s interested in the role and committed to the performance – but the Michael Caine of, say, ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ or ‘The Fourth Protocol’: the Michael Caine who’s basically sleepwalking through each day on set while he tops up his retirement fund.

Anyway, Caine’s 36th Dolan doesn’t get much chance to enjoy his retirement. His internment and Elijah Wood’s swearing in as Dolan numero 37 occur on the same day. 37 tries to ingratiate himself with Kaulder, to limited effect. Kaulder isn’t convinced that 36’s death was natural: “I’ve seen men get old, retire and die – just not on the same day”.

Unfolding against an uneasy truce between elementals and the church – facilitated by a witches’ council – what follows, never mind how fuck-awful in conception and execution, is a pacy and entertaining enough romp through a bit of hasty world-building (or rather underworld-building, since the film is set in an immediately recognisable Big Apple where the witchy and warlocky business is done in basement bars, caverns and abandoned churches). For its first hour or so, it’s pretty much a procedural as eternal loner Kaulder, shoving 37 into the background, cuts a swathe through NYC’s coven community in search of the big bad. En route, he encounters bar owner, sorceress and dreamwalker Chloe (Leslie, who I’d love to see revisit the character in a spin-off): witch and witch-hunter form an alliance.

For its last act, ‘TLWH’ goes into full-on CGI mode as Kaulder’s investigation leads back to his erstwhile encounter with the witch queen and the nature of his immortality is threatened. These aren’t spoilers by the way, the narrative is just very predictable. The CGI is questionable. The stakes, however, are given a little weight. There’s a moment where it looks like Kaulder is eff ewe kay tee fukt, and that at least is something interesting in a Vin Diesel film.

Elsewhere, however, things are strictly boilerplate. The performances are as you’d expect. Leslie does her best, Wood wears the perpetually sad expression of one who once had a proper film career and it wasn’t so long ago either, Caine we have already spoken of, and Diesel we probably shouldn’t speak of. When an actor takes his stage name** from the acronym for vehicle identification number and a combustible fuel, it tells you all you need to know, non? Put it this way: if you saw a poster for an action movie starring Chassis Petrol or Engineblock Benzin, you wouldn’t expect a Paul Schofield or Christopher Plummer level of thespian excellence, would you?

And that’s exactly what you get in ‘TLWH’: a Vin Diesel performance attuned to the expected aesthetic of a Vin Diesel film. If only it had been Rose Leslie vs The Witch Queen From Hell.

*A film ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ should have emulated, in my humble opinion. Vin Diesel walking into a shitty dive, slamming a cross down on the bar and declaring “I am the motherfucking witch patrol, motherfucker” would have been instantly more iconic than anything on offer in the actual film.

**Vin Diesel’s birth name is Mark Sinclair.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: The Love Witch

A true one-off, this flick, and very difficult to quantify using any set of critical perameters. As an example of auteur theory, ‘The Love Witch’ is pretty much the ne plus ultra. The phrase a “film by” has seldom been so completely laid claim to as by Anna Biller who was responsible for its script, score, production, direction, set decoration, art direction, production design and costume design. IMDb doesn’t drill down into such detail, but I’d be willing to put money on her doing the catering, making the tea and designing the poster.

If Biller is the one-woman force of nature that got the film off the ground, Samantha Robinson as the eponymous sorceress makes it fly.

Robinson plays Elaine, a stylish, sexy but somehow slightly strange woman who arrives in a burst of colour and enigma in a small town and proceeds to turn the heads of most of its menfolk. I say “slightly strange” because everything in ‘The Love Witch’ is off-kilter: the camerawork has the too-bright intensity and in-your-face angles of classic gialli, the colours are unnatural, the performances are deliberately stilted, the production design locates the film in some fictive netherworld between 1963 and yesterday, and the music is as if Burt Bacharach suddenly became really interested in Anton LaVey.

Does the above sound like I’m handing out a half-and-half serving of compliment and bitchiness? All I can say is that ‘The Love Witch’ offers, simultaneously, the undiluted artistic expression of its creator and a viewing experience almost guaranteed to have the audience wondering just who the fuck Biller made it for. Its giallo stylisations overlay the first twenty minutes or so only, and moreover its narrative choices and mise en scene are utterly removed from the genre. Its depiction of witchery seems more like a conflation of mental illness and paganism. Its feminist trappings are at best confused. A weird second-half scene, extended to such a length that it must have conceived as meaningful, has a group of wandering minstrels enact a Shakespeare-cum-Wicker-Man-cum-support-group play involving a fake marriage. The whole thing is so po-faced and earnest and abjectly pointless that the only polite response is to gawp at the screen and not snigger.

Granted, most of the film is pitched at the level of pastiche rather than outright spoof or ironic commentary – an artistic decision which negates an entire swathe of conventional critical tropes – but the play scene exists in an entirely different register from anything else. It marks the point at which complete artistic control stumbles over the cracked paving stone of self-indulgence and falls face-first into the sinkhole of what-the-fuckery.

‘The Love Witch’ is a striking and original film that is engaging and entertaining and thought-provoking for approximately 60% of its needlessly extended two hour running time, and you can fuck me with a wagstick from here to the next equinox if the rest of it even remotely belongs on a length of celluloid that could otherwise have been used for road safety commercials.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Blair Witch

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’ came out of nowhere, terrified a generation, and opened the doors for far more “found footage” horror movies than were strictly necessary. It was a cultural phenomenon and tapped into … actually, I don’t know what the fuck it tapped into. I didn’t rate it at all. In fact, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ remains high in the top ten of Most Boring Movies I’ve Sat Through On The Big Screen.

I never even bothered with ‘Blair Witch 2: Book of Cash-In’ and from what I’ve heard of it, I was wise not to. Wish I could say the same of Adam Wingard’s ‘Blair Witch’, its oddly truncated title – suggesting a reboot while it’s actually a “15 years later…” sequel to the original – the least of its problems.

Wingard is one of those directors – like Ti West – who’s carved out a prolific career for a relatively young filmmaker, who turns out confident work on micro-budgets, who often attracts “future of the genre” epithets, and yet never seems to achieve that move to the mainstream the way, for instance, Jordan Peele has with ‘Get Out’. Nor is Wingard quite as smart a director as West or Peele, though parts of ‘You’re Next’ hinted at greater things.

‘Blair Witch’, however, doesn’t. In fact, all ‘Blair Witch’ hints at is the tired cult of remakes that is slowly draining the life from contemporary horror films. Sure, the film is a delayed sequel in which Heather-from-the first-film’s brother (who, given the timeframe, must have been in the neo-natal clinic when she disappeared) sees some footage online and leads a mismatched group of wannabe documentary filmmakers into the woods etc etc, and sure, they’ve got better kit than Heather & co., including a drone, but ‘Blair Witch’ is an almost beat-by-beat remake. It’s certainly a yell-by-yell remake in terms of how bratty and argumentative the principles are. And a shake-by-shake remake as far as the camerawork is concerned.

Where Wingard does pay lip service to originality, he achieves little. There are more principles this time round, including two locals, which should have shaken up the group’s dynamic, but instead just results in more people yelling at each other. There’s a drone to give us aerial shots of how vast the forest is when the endless shots of the group tramping through yet more swathes of woodland on ground entirely establishes the sense of scale anyway. There’s more business at the scary old house at the end, but whereas the original generated a sense of the unexplained by ending at the exact point at which it did, ‘Blair Witch’ plods around the scary old house for fifteen minutes and starts grabbing at anything it can just to fill up the time – tunnels, crawlspaces, characters who had earlier disappeared returning as servants of the witch, a huge God-light that illuminates the scary old house for no other reason, presumably, than someone on the production managed to get their hands on a Kleig light and figured they may as well use it.

Worse is still to come: ‘Blair Witch’ lumbers towards a conclusion straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan twist-ending-for-its-own-sake playbook. A twist that relies on the kind of temporal monkey-business – day suddenly becoming endless night, one character ageing visibly while the others don’t, and a summary of the bootstrap paradox for the YouTube generation – that you can only really get away with if you have a Tardis and a Gallifreyan birth certificate.

‘Blair Witch’ is a wretched piece of work whose 89-minute running time feels like you’ve sat through ‘Satantango’ with commercial breaks every quarter of an hour.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Witchcraft

Um. You know how I said in my last review that I’d find a better film for the fifth offering in this year’s 13 For Halloween? Basically, I’m a lying bastard.

How big a piece of shit is ‘Witchcraft’? Let’s subject it to the cinematic equivalent of the Bristol stool chart: David Hasselhoff is in it, and he doesn’t give the worst performance.

But before we interrogate the cast to find out who is the guiltiest, a word on the title. The opening credits of the copy I watched identified it as ‘Witchcraft’, with the subtitle ‘Evil Encounters’ in brackets. IMDb has it as ‘Witchery’. It was released in the UK as ‘Ghosthouse 2’, and it is in fact an in-name sequel to ‘Ghosthouse’, which was the UK title of Umberto Lenzi’s ‘La Casa 3’; the original title of ‘Witchcraft’ is ‘La Casa 4’ and it trades down Lenzi quite spectacularly for Fabrizio Laurenti (directing under the pseudonym Martin Newlin).

What it isn’t is the Rob Spera film ‘Witchcraft’ (released the same year, just to confuse things). Rob Spera’s ‘Witchcraft’ is a wretched PoS that launched a ridiculously long-running franchise – sixteen instalments, the most recent completed last year – where T&A is the entire aesthetic raison d’être.

Ten minutes into Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’, I found myself wishing I was watching Spera’s ‘Witchcraft’ or any of its execrable sequels.

Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’ starts with a heavily pregnant young woman being chased along a beach by several pilgrim-looking types. They’re carrying farm implements and dressed like they made the best sartorial effort possible to audition for ‘The Crucible’ but were crucially let down by their lack of thespian talent. The pursuit continues as the girl dashes into a beachfront hotel of far more modern construction than the historical period suggested by the costumes, an observation quickly compounded by the appearance, on one wall, of a fuse box. But still, this is swiftly revealed as a dream sequence, so I guess we can let the anachronism slide. The girl runs down a long corridor, occasionally stopping to try one of the doors to either side. All are locked, and she yanks at the door knobs and slams her hand against the timber of the doors with increasing desperation. But if you watch the scene closely (i.e. with your eyes open and a minimum of one synapse firing in your brain), you’ll notice that all the doors have a key in the lock. Every. Single. One. Yeah, I know it’s a dream sequence, but foxtrot foxtrot sierra.

Awaking from this dream is the also-heavily-pregnant Jane Brooks (Linda Blair), and because her waters could break at any moment, it’s deemed appropriate that she accompany her privileged but crotchety parents Rose (Annie Ross) and Freddie (Robert Champagne) to view a piece of real estate on a Massachusetts island that requires a boat crossing in bad weather. And because the trip won’t at all be boring for someone of his age group, they take Jane’s considerably younger brother Tommy (Michael Manchester) as well. Also along for the trip are nymphomaniac sexpot architect Linda Sullivan (Catherine Hickland) and junior partner real estate agent Jerry Giordano (Rick Farnsworth). No prizes for guessing that the property they’re interested in requiring for development is the creepy hotel from Jane’s dream.

It takes an interminable half hour to get these individuals to the hotel. Early scenes have the Brookses engage Linda’s services before they even visit the realtor to request a viewing (!) – the real estate appointment is hilarious, Jerry greeting them as “Mr Brook, Mrs Brooks”, as if he’d barely glanced at the script, couldn’t quite remember their characters’ surname and went for both iterations as if no-one would notice – while Jane is almost killed by a falling girder (it’s being lifted by a crane and swung across a busy city street on the opposite side of which is a construction site: health and safety, much?) and Tommy has a strange encounter with a woman in black (Hildegard Knef, slumming it). And yes, Knef’s character is literally referred to as “the woman in black” in a “let’s hope Susan Hill’s lawyer’s don’t get wind of this” kind of way.

Could the woman in black possibly be connected with the creepy hotel? Well, since Jerry’s sales pitch includes this humdinger – “they’ve got a lot of legends about this island: witches and rainbows and shit” – it seems likely. Though why she tries to kill Jane with the falling girder before the scene even shifts to the island when her nefarious plans are entirely dependent on Jane being at the island, I couldn’t rightly say.

Okay, we’ve just got two more characters to introduce, then we’re ready for the fun and games. Leslie (Leslie Cumming) – her character apparently merit a surname – is a virginal author who’s squatting in the hotel while she translates a German text on witchcraft. This probably made fifty shades of sense in the early script meetings. Joining her is horny photographer Gary (David Hasselhoff), ostensibly there to take the photographs which will accompany the text of a book Leslie hasn’t even started writing yet, but demonstrating more interest in introducing her to the pleasures of the flesh. Leslie testily rebuffs him at every approach.

So: everyone converges at the hotel, supernatural shenanigans ensure their passage back to the mainland is scuppered, and a fearsome storm lashes the island. At least that’s what the script says. In fact, it gets so bad at one point that Jerry’s father (Tony Cammarata), attempting a rescue mission, is foiled at a sea crossing and instead reaches the island by means of a helicopter. That’s how stormy it is. That’s dangerous the waters are. Now here’s a screengrab of the moment the helicopter arrives at the island. In the middle of a storm, remember:

This is the beginning of a five minute sequence in which the characters in the hotel try to attract Jerry’s attention, the helicopter buggers off after they fail to do so, and Gary and Leslie run desperately out of the hotel as the doors (mysteriously locked when the chopper appears) spring open again. It’s an integrated sequence and pretty much staged in real time. It begins at twilight, cuts in some searchlight shots filmed in total darkness, and concludes in broad daylight.

Shots that don’t match and lapses in continuity are par for the course in cheapies of this ilk, but ‘Witchcraft’ seems to take a perverse delight in presenting the audience images that are blithely at odds with what’s in the script. Take this shot, which plays off a discussion about leaving the island because the tide’s going out:

Boy, that tide sure has receded. You can barely see the water!

Or this one …

… where Gary tells a fully-dressed Linda, “Get dressed, we’ve got to leave immediately.”

Being charitable, though, these distractions did at least give me something to focus on other than the story itself, because – sweet baby Jesus in a mosh pit – ‘Witchcraft’ is pure 80s DTV boilerplate. There’s nothing remotely scary, creepy or even moderately tense on offer. Even the big scene where everyone desperately tries to get out of the house as the helicopter buzzes over the hotel, its searchlight not picking out a single sign of life, is robbed of any suspense due to Hasselhoff’s manic bounding from one side of the frame to the other, arms flailing and head jerking this way and that, as if hellbent on anyone else’s performance not being allowed to register.

Meanwhile, as characters fall one by one to the woman in black’s sinister machinations, Laurenti’s vision of the alternative-hotel they find themselves trapped in has all the raw visceral terror of a Duran Duran video. ‘Girls on Film’ maybe. Actually, the ‘Girls on Film’ video had more nudity than ‘Witchcraft’.

At 92 minutes, ‘Witchcraft’ is a long slog. One or two individual shots are competently composed, otherwise the overall standard of filmmaking is dire. The music doesn’t bear thinking of, let alone writing about. The script is garbage soaked in bilgewater. As for the performances, let’s bring this review back to where it started – Hasselhoff as not the worst in show – and end with the crimes against acting on display here. The verdicts are as follows:

Knef – career doldrums hamminess with enough self-deprecation that you know she’s not taking any of it seriously: charges dismissed.

Manchester – kid in a trashy film doing his best with what bad scriptwriters imagine is the way kids act: charges dismissed.

Ross – autopilot but not terrible: extenuating circumstances, non-custodial sentence.

Hickland – daytime soap actress required to do nothing but toss her hair and given the thankless task of trying to convince in a love scene with the wettest lettuce in the cast: extenuating circumstances, non-custodial sentence.

Hasselhoff – attention-seeking overacting: guilty, take him down.

Blair, Cumming, Farnsworth – utterly terrible, amateurish performances; general uncertainty as to the location of the camera in any given scene: guilty, take them down.

And finally our worst offender – Robert Champagne, a man whose surname is wonderfully at odds with his complete lack of sparkle onscreen. His performance isn’t just bad, it reaches a nadir – during one of the worst death scenes I’ve ever witnessed in all my years of watching trashy movies – where the film almost disappears into a black hole of Champagne’s single-handed creation. Guilty. Lock him up and throw away the key.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: I Married a Witch

In 1935, Rene Clair directed ‘The Ghost Goes West’, a sparkling confection of romantic-comedic-supernatural shenanigans that remains an evergreen classic. Seven years later, with ‘I Married a Witch, it seemed like all he needed to do was whatever he’d done on the set of ‘The Ghost Goes West’ and Bob’s your possibly spectral uncle.

Sadly, the magic didn’t happen second time around; and equally sadly your humble blogger had this idiot idea that every film in this year’s 13 For Halloween selection would have the word “witch” in the title, so we’re stuck with ‘I Married a Witch’ when we could have been talking about ‘The Ghost Goes West’.

Mind you, thirteen films with “ghost” in the title would have gifted me a handful of classics and then left me to scrabble with the backfill of a certain syrupy Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore vehicle, ‘Ghost Rider’, ‘Ghost Ship’ and any dispiriting number of others.

Dispiriting. Geddit? (The films delivers a similar gag, using whisky bottles.)

Oh boy, can’t you tell I’m avoiding writing about ‘I Married a Witch’? Okay, deep breath, let’s hammer out a couple of hundred words and I promise I’ll have a better movie for you next time. There are two specific reasons why the film doesn’t work despite Clair being the absolute right director for this type of material. The first, ironically enough, is the source material itself. ‘I Married a Witch’ is adapted from ‘The Passionate Witch’, a novel by Thorne Smith that was published posthumously after being completed by a friend of the author’s. Smith’s literary reputation – though maybe I should put some quotation marks the size of jet aircraft around “literary” – was little more than a peddler of smut. The unfinished manuscript of ‘The Passionate Witch’ was finished off by someone who was a lesser writer even than Smith. None of this boded well for an adaptation.

The second reason is not just an abject lack of chemistry between the stars – Fredric March and Veronica Lake – but the fact that they outright hated each other. March drifts through the film, palpably bored by the material. Lake – gorgeous enough to make a camera lens start composing romantic poetry – was a shoe-in for film noir femme fatale roles, but seems at a loss with the screwball comedy. Far better, albeit squandered in a nothing part, is Susan Hayward; she gets the (attempted) joke and plays the few scenes the script bothers to give her to the hilt. I could weep for a version of ‘I Married a Witch’ where Hayward had Veronica Lake’s role, Cary Grant had Frederic March’s, and the script just, y’know, worked it a bit more.

Having said all that, it’s not an entire write-off. The opening sequence is witty and incorporates a meta-joke half a century before “meta” was even a concept. Some effective potshots are taken at political campaigning and the kind of people who financially back candidates. There’s an interrupted wedding scene that gets funnier the longer it goes on; the frustrated attempts of a soprano of the Florence Foster Jenkins ilk to complete her showpiece are capped by a blunt but perfectly delivered punchline. Elsewhere, though, the humour is so laboured you’d think it was on a chain-gang, and the ending – doubtlessly intended as madcap – flails around in desperation and generates precious few laughs.

See it, if at all, for Hayward and the wedding sequence.

Ooops, just realised. I never got round to synopsizing the plot or even hinting at what the film’s about. Never mind. Clue’s in the title.

Monday, October 09, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Season of the Witch

Heard the one about the two Knights Templar (nope, not the Armando de Ossorio version, though stick around for the Winter of Discontent and I’ll see what I can do) who happily battle their way side by side through a decade’s worth of holy wars only to get upset when innocent women and children die in the Lord’s name, down tools in protest and walk off the job?

No? Oh, it’s hilarious. It goes like this:

There’s these two knights, The Moody Self-Righteous One (Nicolas Cage) and The One Who’s Only In It For The Booze And The Whores (Ron Perlman) and they fuck off the job and go for an epic wander along the shores of Styria (an entirely landlocked country: told you it was hilarious) and fetch up in a small town where they’re recognised, arrested and given the opportunity to redeem their contractual transgression with the church by transporting a witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery because she might hold the key to the plague that’s ravaging the land.

Maybe the script offers a rationale for the above. I’ll be honest: my attention wandered a little while I was watching ‘Season of the Witch’. That’s “wandered” as in I checked my emails, posted something on Facebook, flicked through a volume or poetry, and philosophically contemplated the silent encroachment of rust on the bottom of the living room radiator.

I’ll be even more honest: there were three set pieces that drew my eyes back to the screen – the montage of battles that see our heroes become increasingly disaffected with the knightly life; a vertiginous rope-bridge crossing that plays like ‘Wages of Fear’ by way of ‘Steptoe and Son’; and an extended smack-down with a legion of zombie monks (yes, you read that correctly) – and beyond that it was down to whether Claire Foy was onscreen or not.

To say that Foy is the best thing about the film is a backhanded compliment, since it’s not exactly bristling with good things. Yeah, the double-act between Cage and Perlman is better than any of us had any right to expect, and at least we get a moderately subdued Cage performance here and none of the scenery-munching histrionics of ‘Ghost Rider’ or the execrable ‘Wicker Man’ remake. And yeah, the production design is okay, and the running time – a shade over an hour and a half – means that ‘Season of the Witch’ doesn’t outstay its welcome too egregiously. But none of these things actually constitute grounds for recommendation.

Claire Foy’s performance does. As the witch who might not be a witch – who might, in fact, be something worse – her characterisation weaves sinuously between coquettish, mocking, omniscient, naïve and demonic. She’s magnetic and unpredictable, creating a genuinely effective antagonist.

There’s no punchline to this review, by the way. This is a film directed by Dominic Sena which was subject to reshoots by Brett fucking Ratner. It would be wicked to mock the afflicted.

Friday, October 06, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Witchboard

Six years ago, on this very blog, I reviewed Kevin S. Tenney’s ‘Night of the Demons’, and came to the conclusion that it was “a delivery system for boobs, blood and rampant swathes of what-the-fuckery”. Tenney’s previous film, made two years before ‘Night of the Demons’, was ‘Witchboard’ and it would be nice to say that seeds of the aforementioned aesthetic were being sown here.

It would be very nice to say that.

Hell, let’s at least try to make a case.

How does ‘Witchboard’ fare in terms of boobs? Apart from an overhead shot of Tawny Kitaen taking a shower – don’t get excited, Whitesnake fans, the shower’s running hot and the steam obscures everything of interest – not really.

Blood? Some, but the kill scenes are stingily apportioned throughout a 97-minute movie that seems to last a lot longer. Granted, there is a death-by-sundial scene that ups the ante and briefly arouses the interest, but on the whole there’s not much going on that you haven’t seen in a billion other shabby shockers.

Rampant swathes of what-the-fuckery? Ah, this is where ‘Witchboard’ really misses out. Whereas ‘Night of the Demons’ has such demented moments as a tube of lipstick disappearing into a woman’s nipple, or the entrance to a funeral parlour suddenly morphing into a brick wall the moment the weird shit goes down and the protagonists try to escape, the best ‘Witchboard’ can do is a few dream sequences that are all billowing curtains, fog machine, huge staircases and even bigger hair.

Also, ‘Night of the Demons’ has Amelia Kinkade as the ultimate bad girl demon while ‘Witchboard’ has Tawny Kitaen as a dopey housewife. With big hair.

Part of me wants to wrap up this review with a quick “so watch ‘Night of the Demons’ instead and you can happily tick the Kevin S. Tenney box on your checklist of trash viewing” epithet – and I’d be entirely justified in doing so under any set of critical parameters – but goll-darnit, I set out to write a review of ‘Witchboard’, so a motherloving review of ‘Witchboard’ is what you’re getting. Like it or not.

(The Agitation of the Mind: putting the reader first since 2007.)

‘Witchboard’ opens with a ten-minute sequence at a party thrown by entitled white girl Linda (Kitaen) and her bit-of-rough working class boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen). Most of the guests are Linda’s ivy league friends; only a couple of Jim’s construction site buddies stop by. Tensions run high from the outset, mainly due to the presence of smarmy rich boy Brandon (Stephen Nichols). Backstory: Jim and Brandon grew up together after the latter’s parents took Jim in because his parents were alcoholic fuck-ups; Jim aspires to go to med school but drops out; Jim and Brandon fall out over Linda. None of the characterisations by the three principles even comes close to selling this melodramatic poop.

Anyway, back to the party: Brandon is holding court and acting like a douchebag, Jim is hitting the JDs like Lynchburg is about to go into receivership, and Linda is exasperated by the pair of them. As a result of a big theological debate between Brandon and another party guest – said individual disappears after this scene, never to be seen again – Brandon pulls out a ouija board and –

Yep, I know what you’re thinking: how does one of these things logically bring us to the other? I don’t know either. I’m guessing that the script notes went something like this:

1. Big theological debate.
2. ???
3. Ouija board
4. Scary shit
5.Rest of movie

Using the same reductive technique, “rest of movie” subdivides to:

5a. Rip off ‘The Omen’ a bit
5b. Wacky medium
5c. Road trip/bromance
5d. Love conquers all finale

Yep, I know what you’re thinking: what the fuck is with 5b and 5c? I’ll answer those questions one at a time. Brandon, intuiting that Linda has been using the ouija board unsupervised, enlists the help of medium Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite) to investigate the weird goings-on at Jim and Linda’s place and, if necessary, kick out any evil spirits. Zarabeth duly shows up in a goth-cum-witch-doctor ensemble that has to be seen to be disbelieved, acts all goofy-creepy, and throws out dialogue alternating between surfer/slacker and motherfucking P.G. Wodehouse. Seriously: who addresses all and sundry as “dude” then departs with a fey “TTFN” [ta-ta for now]? Zarabeth is basically the creation of filmmakers who decided to appeal to the John Hughes demographic with a goth character but fundamentally misunderstand both goths and John Hughes fans.

In respect of the road trip/bromance, events force Linda offstage and while she recuperates Jim and Brandon go cruising the byways and highways to research the life (and death) of the spirit Linda has summoned, and rekindle their friendship as a result. They visit libraries, try to find people using a telephone directory, find help at an esoteric second hand bookshop, and go prowling round a graveyard at night because this film was made in 1986 and the world was only a decade off having them go on the internet and find everything out and still hate each at the end of a 90-second montage and ten minutes would have been shaved off the running time.

Sarcasm notwithstanding, the road trip is easily the best part of the film, even though it’s no surprise to note that when the chips are down and Linda’s very soul is at stake, the guy who lost her stops being a dick and goes the distance while the guy who has her still behaves like a douchebag. Or maybe it’s a deficiency in Tenney’s script that Brandon was an okay guy all along but he had to act the big wanktard in the party scene in order to kick start the plot.

But we’re down to semantics here. ‘Witchboard’ presents a boilerplate but not unentertaining way of passing 97 minutes. Nichols’s performance is acceptable; everyone else’s isn’t. It’s nicely shot and not all of the effects are bad. The title is a non sequitur. Board, yes; as in ouija. Witch, no. There’s shag all to do with witches or witchcraft here. I wondered briefly whether Tenney was trying to capitalise on the ‘Witchcraft’ franchise, but the first of those particular opuses wouldn’t debut until two years after ‘Witchboard’.

This isn’t semantics, however. If you’re going to call your film ‘Witchboard’, then throw in a little witchery.